October 24 marks a significant milestone for me. On that date in 1984, I joined 25 others on a three day 78-mile march, from outside New Orleans to the Louisiana state capital Baton Rouge to protest the death penalty.
I was 24, and after two years in the JVC, I had begun work at the Holy Ghost Community Center, providing direct assistance to persons in an uptown New Orleans community near the Magnolia Housing Projects. And I was restless to do more to promote justice.
The late George Lundy got me involved in the Ernest Knighton case that fall. He faced imminent execution, and George and others were trying to gain clemency for him from Louisiana’s Pardon Board. High on drugs, Knighton shot a convenience store clerk during a botched robbery in Bossier City. The bullet ricocheted off the clerk’s shoulder before traveling to his heart killing him.
Knighton’s impulsiveness argued for clemency. Circumstances in another contemporaneous Bossier City murder also demonstrated how racist and arbitrary Knighton’s sentence had been. In that case, three white men raped and murdered a young African American woman. They slit her throat, and let out a rebel yell of triumph. Yet, a jury spared these men’s lives.
The Knighton case was the march’s catalyst, and when I received the invitation to join it, I was ready to move. Catholic social justice types, civil rights leaders and civil libertarians formed our ranks. “A rag tag band of protestors,” was how one journalist described us.
We certainly weren’t properly prepared for that kind of march. It was in the 80’s that weekend, but we didn’t apply enough sunscreen and discovered moleskin’s virtues to protect blisters belatedly. As a result, we walked a marathon three consecutive days, sweaty and sunburned, with blisters and sore legs.
Misery engendered solidarity, which our mutual convictions about capital punishment strengthened. We slept on gym floors, and showered in strangers’ homes. We ran through BENGAY tubes, and cracked numerous jokes about our quarters smelling like old folks’ homes. Yet, generous volunteers fed us well, and the camaraderie we experienced as we got to know our new friends, over a few beers, nourished our souls and lifted our spirits and prepared us for the journey ahead. By the time we arrived at the capitol at dusk Sunday evening, our legs burning with lactic acid build up, I was a confirmed abolitionist.
As I committed to do more to end Louisiana’s death penalty, I soon discovered however how difficult and long the road to abolition would be. We were trying to change a law that the overwhelmingly majority strongly supported. We didn’t know how to address victims’ families’ members understandable anger or counter the perception we were bleeding hearts more concerned with murderers than crime. We were also largely a movement of white justice types that had to confront our own racism if we hoped to sustain our movement. Plus, we faced the typical internal personal and philosophical differences.
Until I left New Orleans in 1987, I worked alongside Helen Prejean to organize more actions against the death penalty, working imperfectly, messily, painfully, all too humanly through the above issues. I encountered similar issues when I worked with my good friend Rick Halperin and others to organize the statewide Texans Against State Killing march in 1991.
In 1993, I participated in the first Journey of Hope in Indiana. Persons who had lost a family member to murder but opposed capital punishment led this two-week educational tour, which represented a sea change in advocacy against the death penalty.
Family members’ powerful eloquent testimony exposed the myth all victims’ family members wanted vengeance. Journey members also exposed the lie the death penalty brings closure to them, when nothing can bring back their loved ones; executions merely compound their suffering. Compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation will heal victims, rehabilitate offenders, and turn our society away from vengeance, violence and death toward mercy, peace and life.
That message has gradually taken hold nationally. 18 states have abolished the death penalty and others such as New Hampshire and Delaware appear close to abolition. These realities, which seemed far-fetched 30 years give me great hope abolition will become universal in the United States.
The understandable anxiety persons experience in the age of Terrorism presents new challenges to death penalty opponents. However, I’m confident the tide has turned, and I will continue to write and speak about abolition. And one October 24 I hope I won’t commemorate another anniversary as an abolitionist.